“Partners. Allies. Friends.”
That is how British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced on Twitter that the British government was committing 80 million British pounds ($96m) in funding for Kenya. The funds have been allocated to “give the people of Nairobi an accessible and efficient railway system”, Cleverly said during his recent trip to the country.
Now historically, the words “Britain, Kenya, Nairobi and railways”, taken together, do not necessarily evoke memories of partnership and friendship. Quite the opposite. The building of a railway in East Africa that came to be known as the Lunatic Line in the 1890s, right at the dawn of British colonialism, ate up African land and African lives – not that the builders and historians bothered to count the cost to Black people.
In response to Cleverly’s visit, Kenya’s recently elected Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, declared: “The British people have a rich history with the Kenyan people. 90 percent of it is good and 10 percent of it is acrimonious.”
It was a jaw-dropping assessment, especially coming in the same week that Al Jazeera aired the documentary “A Very British Way of Torture”, which details the atrocities committed by the British during Kenya’s independence war in the 1950s and 1960s.
The statements by the two officials indicate the erasure from public memory – in both Kenya and Britain – of the trauma of the colonial period. Worse still, they reflect the active substitution of an official narrative of British beneficence for the reality of subjugation and resistance during the 70 years of colonial rule.
For example, this year marks 70 years since the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) took up arms against the brutal British colonial regime and thus commenced the Kenyan war for independence. The KLFA was a peasant army formed among the Kikuyu people and led by revolutionary Dedan Kimathi; it fought against colonial rule and sought land reform and an end to apartheid.
British propangadists, however, called it “Mau Mau” – a term created by white settlers and meant to evoke ideas of atavistic violence. Yet as the Al Jazeera documentary shows, it was the reaction of the British colonial authorities to the rebellion that was brutal and inhuman.
The KLFA’s uprising made international news at the time but the narrative to date has reflected the British propaganda of African savagery.
According to the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary the verb to “mau-mau” reflects “the historical British version of the actions of the Mau Mau, a version that does not acknowledge the grievances of the Kikuyu or the atrocities committed against them. In current English, mau-mau is used to suggest that a person’s efforts and actions stem only from a desire to commit violent acts, or in milder use, to cause disruption or achieve some petty aim.”
Unsurprisingly, the term has been used as a racial slur against Black people. In 2002, for example, right-wing American columnist Ann Coulter wrote that Halle Berry – who had just become the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar – “successfully mau-maued her way” to the award.
Despite the derogatory connotation of Mau Mau, Gachagua used the term when he promised to have a conversation with Cleverly regarding compensation for “our Mau Mau” during his trip to Kenya.
The Kenyan deputy president should know that the KLFA rejected this label. In a 1953 Charter, introducing the movement, rebellion leader Kimathi, declared: “We reject being called terrorists for demanding our people’s rights. We are the Kenya Land [and] Freedom Army.” Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, who was a KLFA liaison officer before being arrested and sent to a British concentration camp wrote: “The world knows it by a title of abuse and ridicule with which it was described by one of its bitterest opponents.”
The absence of any official acknowledgement of the rebellion anniversary is all the starker given the global celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee in February, despite the fact that she became monarch while on a trip to Kenya in 1952 when the uprising was already under way. That inconvenient fact was cut out of the remembrance and not even mentioned by then-Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in his congratulatory message to the British monarch.
What is left out of history is just as important as what is included. As we have seen, the substitution of KLFA with “Mau Mau” is not without consequences. It is meant to encourage forgetting through a selectively curated remembrance. It is a way of portraying the movement as savage, atavistic and bloodthirsty, and by doing so, erases its legitimate political objectives.
As Julie MacArthur, author of Dedan Kimathi on Trial, notes, the Kenyan colonial state is hugely invested in the forgetting of the KLFA. Kimathi, for instance, wrote prolifically but the Kenyan public has been kept almost completely ignorant of his letters and his politics. There is also little discussion of the debates the KLFA had in the Kenyan Parliament they set up in the bush or of their ideas about how the country should be run.
In 1956, Kimathi was captured by the British colonial authorities and hastily put on trial, but the record of the court proceedings kept in Nairobi was, according to MacArthur, “a poor transcription from the original, handwritten notes for the trial, written in an obscure shorthand that made full transcription almost impossible, probably hastily copied down sometime in the 1990s”.
Through her efforts and those of dedicated staff at the Supreme Court, including Stanley Mutuma and former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, the true record of the trial and appeal was located in the UK and a copy repatriated to Kenya to great fanfare six years ago, only to once again be quickly forgotten. Kimathi’s name and image continued to be present everywhere, but not his thoughts.
The post-1963 version of the Kenyan colonial state is built on this and many other similar acts of public forgetting. Kenyans are urged to keep their eyes firmly forward and strive for “development”, to forgive and forget the past.
The stolen colonial archive remains in the UK a decade after the British government was forced to admit it had repeatedly lied, not just to Kenyans, but to its own people and courts, about its existence. The failure to repatriate it means the stories contained in it are still curated for Kenyans by others. The Al Jazeera documentary, made by a British crew primarily for a British audience is an example of this, despite its important contribution.
None of this is to say Kimathi or the KLFA were saints or that they had it all figured out. It is rather that Kenyans are denied alternative narratives of what could have been and yet could be.
Rather, what we get is a doctored, hand-me-down history, one that, at independence, the imperialists and their hand-picked local collaborators designed to ensure that a continuation of the colonial enterprise was the only legitimate option Kenyans could conceive.
Yet our destiny need not be written in the modern imperial firmament. We have our own stars.
So when James Cleverly turns up with talk of friendship and investment in railways – just like other Britons did nearly a century and a half ago – and Gachagua responds with inanity, we must see that this is in line with their long-held desire to make Kenyans forget the KLFA and instead remember the Mau Mau.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.